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In Bangladesh, a Raging 'One-Woman’ Show Against US’ Selective Strategy

What strikes observers is the US-led West’s differing policy approach towards Pakistan.

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As Bangladesh votes today on 7 January, it will not be a nail-biting finish. Voter apathy is also evident since it is a foregone conclusion that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) party will return to power.

The major Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has decided to boycott the election because its demand that the Hasina government resign and hand over power to a neutral government to conduct the elections, has been rejected.

There is no Constitutional provision for a caretaker-neutral government anymore after the Supreme Court, in 2011, held that this provision was illegal, though the court left an option for the government to continue with it for a few more elections.

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Election Frenzy in Bangladesh Is Rather Passive

The Hasina government opted to legislate the 15th Constitutional amendment to expunge this provision.

Hasina is destined to be the longest-serving PM of Bangladesh, a record which beats Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure as the PM of India.

While election campaigning may be in full swing with rallies, posters, and banners all over the country, the anticipation and excitement of an election result are missing. The BNP’s continuing agitation which disrupted normal life has now reached the final stage wherein it has called upon voters to boycott the polling.

Violence has been unleashed and the latest attack has been on a passenger train which was set on fire, claiming the lives of four.

The Yunus Conundrum in Hasina’s Political Graph

The political scenario has been further complicated by the sentencing of 83-year-old Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus to 6 months in jail for violating labour laws. Hasina’s detractors have called the verdict "politically motivated”.

Her ire against Yunus dates back to 2007 when the Army-backed caretaker government attempted the so-called "minus-two” formula which attempted to eliminate Hasina and Khaleda Zia, both former PM and popularly known as the "battling begums”.

Yunus was the first choice of the Army-backed caretaker government to create a new political party that would eliminate the two squabbling leaders.

This experiment in political engineering failed and when Hasina won a thumping electoral victory in 2008, she was in no mood to forgive Yunus.
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Hasina took Yunus’ political foray as a stab in the back by a person whom she had helped to build the Grameen Phone network. Yunus was granted bail immediately after the verdict was announced and the appeal against the sentence will certainly be heard by the High Court.

Several legal cases were instituted against Yunus and his word famous microcredit organisation "Grameen Bank” and mobile phone company "Grameen Phone”. These cases attracted global attention since Yunus had pioneered the concept of microcredit to the needy rural folk who were outside the formal banking system.

World leaders had taken up cudgels on behalf of Yunus but Hasina refused to bend. This development is unlikely to have any impact on the election.
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West’s Anti-Hasina Stand Divides Nations

The drumbeat of criticism against Hasina, led by the US-led West, has been active for quite some time. The popular refrain being accusing Bangladesh of becoming a one-party state and democracy being suffocated.

Domestic constituencies, many nurtured by the West and the Opposition parties, have rallied to this cause. Be that as it may, the US with its weaponising sanctions and Visa regime against officers of the anti-terrorist force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and those who subvert the process of a free and fair election, has not succeeded in making Hasina bend to its will.

She is not a leader who takes kindly to such blatant pressure.

The US Ambassador in Dhaka had become overactive meeting opposition party leaders, anti-AL NGOs, and the Election Commission, attracting criticism of interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.

The boycott by the BNP has taken the wind out of the sails of the American-led pressure strategy on insisting on a "free and fair election”.
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The AL has no competition now and no incentive for fiddling with the election process. US' pressure persuaded India, China, and Russia to oppose external interference in Bangladesh.

While China and Russia feel that it seeks to force Bangladesh to join its Indo-Pacific strategy and therefore, oppose the US, India regards external interference as detrimental to its strategic interest.

What strikes observers is the US-led West’s differing policy approach towards Pakistan. The Pak Army can crush, mutilate democracy, and violate basic human rights but the Army Chief gets a high-level warm reception in Washington.

It is no secret that the Pak Army delivers on numerous demands made by the US Administration and buys immunity on various domestic issues. The China factor also comes into play. Big powers routinely craft their policy depending on their specific interest. The US uses human rights and democracy selectively as leverage where it suits its interests.

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Hasina Government’s Hits and Misses

It is true that the Hasina government has cracked down on the Opposition and many thousands have been jailed. Her strong action has been justified time and again on the grounds of maintaining law and order because of BNP’s frequent attempts to force lockdowns, hartals, and running battles with the police causing death and injuries to many.

But the BNP's chief reason remains that under Hasina, the possibility of a free and fair election remains a distant dream.

It is speculated that BNP’s Vice-Chairman Tarique Rahman who is in forced exile in London, is behind the boycott decision. He cannot return to Bangladesh because of a series of convictions in corruption cases and a death sentence for being part of the conspiracy in the 2004 grenade attack on Hasina’s public rally which led to her injury and the death of several AL leaders.

Many believe that Tarique is worried that if the BNP participates in an election, his control over the party will erode. Many allege that he has put his ambition above the interest of his party and his country.

To her credit, Hasina has presided over unprecedented economic growth in Bangladesh whose GDP far exceeds that of Pakistan's and GDP per capita has overtaken that of India's.
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How It Impacts Equation With India?

  • Ties with India have led to a booming trade and a slew of connectivity projects. Energy supplies from India and power projects being constructed by Indian companies will ensure energy security.

  • India has also contributed to Bangladesh’s food and energy security, apart from extending around USD 10 billion in development assistance.

  • Bangladeshis constitute the largest group of foreign visitors to India. Post-Covid and disruption in supply chains have caused a downturn in the economy. The Hasina government has had to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan to buffer its falling foreign reserves. Inflation has fuelled price rise affecting the poor.

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A Middle Ground for Islamist Parties

The rising tide of Islamism in Bangladesh has undermined the secular fabric of the country since the late 1970s. Islamist parties have entered into alliances with the AL or the BNP for electoral gains because on their own, they do not have enough traction for winning.

Though Hasina has cracked down on violent Islamists and terrorists, she has had to make compromises with Islamist political parties for electoral reasons.
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A new Liberal Islamic Alliance (LIA) has been formed which intends to participate in the election. The AL would be keen to facilitate the participation of such new parties to show that the election has been free and fair. The Islamist parties want more political command and aim to take over as the main opposition, displacing the BNP.

These may each have a different political outlook but they all share the ultimate goal of making Bangladesh a Sharia-compliant Islamic nation. If that happens then, India’s neighbourhood challenges will multiply.

(The author is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; he has served as Deputy High Commissioner and later as High Commissioner to Bangladesh; he is a founding Director of DeepStrat, a think tank and a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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